The secret to work avoidance? Be scary or be useless

The equivalent of the avoiding washing-up technique at work is to be hopeless at small tasks

The best work-avoidance technique of all is to be perfectly willing, but perfectly incompetent.

The best work-avoidance technique of all is to be perfectly willing, but perfectly incompetent.


At some times of the year work feels more of a chore than at others. This is one of those times. It is summer. Wimbledon is on. So is the World Cup. Even if you don’t care for either tennis or football, enough secondary excitement reaches you to make you feel disinclined to strain yourself in the office.

One popular solution is to throw a sickie – according to one extravagant report, 3.5 million of them will be thrown during the footie tournament in Britain alone. But not only is pretending to be ill a short-term solution, it goes so much against the grain of my upbringing that never in 34 years of employment have I thrown a sickie, so it may be a bit late to start now.

That does not mean I disapprove of work-avoidance in general. On the contrary, it is necessary for survival and is a skill that one needs, not only at the tail- end of June, but all year round. Practised well, it does not lead to failed careers – it often leads to the most successful ones.

Take two men I know, both the same age, both equally talented. One is a magnet for extra work, which gets dumped on him all the time. Sometimes he grumbles a little, but diligently crunches through the pile of unexciting tasks, knowing that when he is done, there will be more waiting. The other man never does any surplus tasks at all. He isn’t exactly lazy, but only works on things that interest him. In his spare time he sits in his office watching the tennis on his iPhone.

Unequal effort

Which of the two is more handsomely rewarded for their unequal effort? Mr Obliging or Mr Not-So-Obliging? The sad truth is that the first has received no benefit from his drudgery, while the second has suffered no punishment for his shirking.

I have been trying to understand how Mr Not-So-Obliging gets away with it. At first I thought it was a matter of saying no. This is a skill I have finally mastered after a couple of decades of trying. It turns out to be really easy: you just say no at once, without offering reasons.

Avoid being asked

Yet in my experience, skilled work-avoiders hardly ever say no. They do something far more ingenious: they avoid being asked in the first place. There are some well-known strategies for this, including bustling around with a clipboard looking busy or wearing headphones and staring intently at the screen forbidding anyone from approaching.

Yet Mr Not-So-Obliging tells me his secret is far simpler – he simply reduces to the barest minimum the amount of time he spends in the office. If you aren’t there physically, it is extraordinary how little grunt work you get asked to do. It is true that some requests come in by email, but he assures me that these are easy to wriggle out if you wait 24 hours before replying – by which time some other poor sucker will have been dragooned instead.

The trouble with this trick is that if you are never in the office, people forget you exist. Fortunately there is another work-avoidance strategy I have seen used to such great effect by some colleagues it amazes me that there is no body of literature supporting it, and no courses teaching you how to pull it off.


It is to act frightening. Frightening people never get asked to do grunt work. The difficulty here is that scariness is partly an innate characteristic, and partly comes with seniority. However, at the margin, it may be possible to make yourself a little more frightening by playing on your workmate’s fear of the unknown. We are scared of people whose behaviour we can’t predict; and so it might be an idea to alternate taciturn behaviour with bouts of garrulousness. People might think you scary – or they might think you are going mad.

The best work-avoidance technique of all is to be perfectly willing, but perfectly incompetent. This trick is much practised at home by my sons, who when asked to do the washing-up take care always to do it so badly that it becomes a serious disincentive to asking them to do it again – especially if there is anyone more competent around to do it instead.

The equivalent of the washing-up technique at work is to be hopeless at small tasks. To be late writing boring reports or to write scrappy minutes for meetings. Alas, this is a trick for the advanced class only: you should never attempt it unless you are considered to be very good indeed at the big stuff. Then you will find yourself forgiven and (this is the really unfair bit) even respected for your areas of incompetence and unwillingness.

When you are caught at your desk flagrantly watching Wimbledon on your computer, people will smile indulgently and think you a jolly good chap. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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